Spending Cuts, Financial Crises, and Social Darwinism


The American Museum of Natural History, 77th and Central Park West

I have been reading Sven Beckert’s excellent book, The Monied Metropolis, recently.  It presents an account of how the economic elite of New York city consolidated into a coherent and powerful social class during the second half of the 19th century.  A deeply thought-provoking study, I encourage everyone who has not done so to read it.

My own interest in Becker’s research stems from the fact that one way Bourgeoise New Yorkers performed their social distinction was by visibly patronizing elite cultural institutions.  The most obvious examples are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Philharmonic.  In both cases, the idea was to distinguish oneself by displaying your highbrow tastes.  Thus, a crucial function for institutions like the Metropolitan Museum was to demarcate fine or legitimate art from popular, lowbrow entertainment.  

The interesting thing for me is that these people also patronized the American Museum of Natural History, which is located on the West side of Central Park, directly facing the Metropolitan Museum on the East.  What did the Natural History Museum distinguish or demarcate itself from?  The answer, I think, are the popular museums located further downtown.  The most famous of these is PT Barnum’s American museum.  But there were many more “dime museums” all over the city, probably over a dozen in all.  

If the Natural History Museum exhibited genuine and secure scientific knowledge, dime museums catered to people’s taste for the strange, exotic and wonderful.  The claim, then, is that whereas the Metropolitan Museum sought to canonize fine art, the Natural History Museum demarcated science from humbug.

I’ll leave the rest of that argument to my dissertation.  What I wanted to share with everyone here is a curious and highly topical connection between Beckert’s work and contemporary debates about government spending, fiscal policy, and the federal budget.

Beckert traces the origins of New York’s monied elite back to the early decades of the 19th century, but they did not begin to coalesce into a coherent social class until after the Civil War.  The most defining moment in the process, he argues, was the financial crisis of 1873.  It constituted the most severe economic depression the United States had experienced up to that point, and it came about when a speculative bubble in the railroad industry burst.  Once it became clear that investments in railroads had been overvalued, many banks fell apart.  Coal mining and other industries tied to the railroads -- such as steel and iron manufacturing -- also went into decline, with ripples spreading throughout the nation’s entire economy.

New York’s Bourgeoisie responded to the crisis by closing ranks.  This trend became especially pronounced as workers’ wages and conditions declined, leading to labor unrest.  

In addition to these economic changes, Beckert reminds us there was also an important and well-known intellectual movement gaining traction at the time: Social Darwinism.  In the United States, Spencer’s articulation of the idea that evolutionary progress requires a struggle for survival in human society as well as the natural world met an especially receptive audience among the New York’s financial and industrial elite.

Hence, whereas an older generation of wealthy New Yorkers had emphasized the importance of public munificence and civic stewardship, the new generation argued that many of the city’s working poor bore a personal responsibility for the conditions in which they now found themselves.  Rather than a misfortune of circumstance, poverty was cast as the result of moral failings.

What really struck me about Beckert’s story is that Bourgeoise New Yorkers responded to the panic of 1873 with what he calls “fiscal retrenchment.”  Their own considerable finances under serious threat for the first time in living memory, wealthy New Yorkers argued forcefully that the city would be wrong to spend their tax dollars on extravagant relief efforts and public works projects to alleviate public suffering.  For example, Beckert quotes Samuel Tilden, a railroad lawyer and governor of New York State from 1875 to 1877, who cut taxes and reduced public spending, leaving it up “to the people to work out their own prosperity and happiness.”  Even more compelling is a quote from the city’s mayor, William F. Havemeyer, who told the Times in 1873 that he “could not see why the property of those who, by thrift and industry, had built up their houses, should be confiscated [by] men who had ... by strikes or the like, contributed to the present state of things themselves.”

Rather than invest tax dollars in public works project and social programs, the Bourgeoisie preferred to set up their own, private charity operations.  The reason, Beckert argues, is that in so doing they could attempt to distinguish between the city’s “deserving” and its “undeserving” poor.  While it made sense to offer relief to the poor, nothing good could come out of encouraging pauperism!  As the NY State Board of Charity put it in its 1877 Annual Report, most of the impoverished classes “reached that condition by idleness, improvidence, drunkenness” or some other “form of vicious indulgence.”


I was nervous I might have overstated the relevance of your diss to processes of industrialization in my report on JAS-BIO, but this post has me more convinced than ever. High-brow, low-brow; up-town, down-town; Science, humbug. Are these dichotomies particularly American? And if they in fact are, to what extent do they provide an alternative framework (as opposed to economic history) for tracking the logic of capital in American context?

Hi Joanna --

I am not sure I've fully understood your question, but here's a shot at an answer:

What makes the American context unique, I think, is that museums have a somewhat different institutional history here than they do in Europe. As I understand it, most major European museums started out as royal cabinets that were opened to the general public, usually around the turn of the 19th century. The best example, of course, is the Jardin du Roi in Paris which evolved into the Jardin des Plantes after the French Revolution. But similar things happened in Germany and other places on the continent too. Things were a bit different in England, which was less of an absolutist state in the 18th century. The British Museum was always open to the public, but it was not quite what I would call a popular institution.

In the United States, there were no royal collections that antedated the revolution. The first serious museum was run by Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia, and it was a proprietary institution that catered to the public's eclectic tastes. In the years that followed, two distinct types of institutions emerged. The first were so-called dime museums which were primarily sites of public amusement. They usually featured taxidermic specimens, a live menagerie, panoramic views of exotic places, moral dramas, and other types of curiosities. The most famous of these is PT Barnum's American Museum, but there were dozens if not hundreds of them scattered across the country. Most were small, short-lived storefront operations so we don't know nearly enough about them.

The second kind of institution was what you might call a research museum. These did not have a profit motive. Rather, they were places for learned men of science and avocational naturalists to do their studies and discuss their ideas. Some were also connected to educational institutions, like the MCZ at Harvard. Many were involved in training advanced students but they were not really popular institutions like the dime museums (they were much more similar to the European museums).

The AMNH and other civic museums emerged late in the century and basically incorporated the functions of both dime and research museums. These were hybrid institutions dedicated to public amusement, rational recreation, civic education, and natural history research. The interesting thing, for me, is that since these new civic museums were also sites for the Bourgeoisie to perform their social distinction while claiming to uplift and educate the general public, they had to be both popular in the sense of attracting large crowds of people but also elite in the sense of not pandering to the public's taste for spectacle (of the PT Barnum variety).

So, whereas you certainly have a highbrow / lowbrow distinction in Europe, it does not map onto Natural History Museums in nearly the same way. As far as I can tell, the dime museum was a uniquely American innovation!

Thanks Lukas. I'm trying to understand how tracking the 'mandates' of such hybrid civic museums can yield new perspectives on the economic and cultural dimensions of class construction itself (vis-a-vis the emergence of industrialist Bourgeoisie vs. a long-standing royal aristocracy)in the U.S. This is a very useful answer.

Lukas: I'm interested in this post on a number of levels, and it doesn't hurt that you wrote it so well. I have no doubt you're right that the NY upper-crust funneled money into institutions they could control and that would avoid the leveling of democratically controlled state institutions. I'm reminded of David Scobey's article on the "Anatomy of the Promenade," in which Scobey argues that class coherence structured around firm rules of decorum and social performance on 5th avenue created a new kind of public sphere: one built to provide stability and peace in a turbulent democratic society (as opposed to the early modern public sphere that created space for political contention in absolutist, class-riven states). When the elites abandoned the Promenade in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, they moved into opera houses and museums.

I do wonder about a couple things, however:
1. What distinguishes the ideas of these elites that the poor brought their poverty on themselves from the same sort of talk earlier in the century, as depicted so vividly in works like Charles Rosenberg's _The Cholera Years_?

2. Must we still talk about "social darwinism"? I'll grant that many folk enjoyed their Spencerian social statics and looked down on the poor. But "social darwinism" wasn't an actor's category until some time later, and it carried the unwarranted implication that Darwin, when applied to social life, had only one manifestation. In fact, radical texts like C.P.Gilman's _Women and Economics_ were more Darwinian and not well-beloved by Carnegie's crowd. (Note---I'm unfairly picking on your post, Lukas: this is a pet peeve)

3. I'm surprised that dime museums don't at least have British counterparts or predecessors. They seem a short conceptual jump away from the old curiosity shop.

Thanks for these comments Dan. Let me try to respond.

My reading of Beckert's overall argument is that New York's bourgeoisie emerged out of a fairly diverse and fractious group of wealthy merchants, bankers, and industrialists. Prior to the Civil War, there were deep divisions in the group, especially between well-established merchants and industrialists, the latter of which were just beginning to make their fortunes. Prior to the war, then, we cannot really speak of a coherent social class. This all began to change after the war, especially during the panic of 1873. Why then? There is no single reason, and we can point to early signs of coalescence much earlier. But, Beckert argues, among the most important factors was the growing labor unrest of the 1870s and 80s.

This is all to say that of course some people had been arguing that poverty was a moral failing rather than an unfortunate circumstance prior to 1873. However, there was also a widespread sentiment -- especially among the old and well established merchant families -- that wealthy elites had a social and religious responsibility of stewardship towards less fortunate New Yorkers than themselves.

The flip side of this coin, as you suggest, is that these older ideas of stewardship and altruism did not entirely disappear in the late 19th Century. Beckert is far too good a historian to be trading in absolutes. Rather, he has identified a trend. As wealthy New Yorkers closed ranks, esp. in the face of mounting labor unrest, they coalesced into a self-conscious and identifiable social class. One thing they increasingly shared in common was a social ideology in which wealth was the product of hard work, virtue, and thrift whereas poverty resulted from indolence, laziness, and extravagance. Perhaps they would not have used the phrase "Social Darwinism" themselves. But matters is that we, as historians, can identify a coherent set of views shared among most members of a particular social class. Whether we label it as "Social Darwinism" or something else seems to me somewhat besides the point.

The question about dime museums and curio shops is a fascinating one, and I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on that topic. Very briefly, I'll just say this:

One important distinction between the dime museum and the curio shop is that dime museums self-consciously adopted certain aspects of their style from elite cultural institutions like the Jardin des Plantes and the British Museum. So, although PT Barnum certainly engaged in his share of public spectacle, and although he made no attempt to hide his pecuniary interests, he also billed his museum as offering a moral education centered on natural history and human virtue. In part, this was a brilliant ploy to draw the respectable middle classes out of their parlors and into the city during the leisure hours. But I also think it's very important that we realize this was not just a cynical move on his part. There are good reasons to think Barnum and other dime museum operators had a genuine interest in natural history. For example, Barnum frequently had Louis Agassiz deliver lectures in his theater. And, later in life, having moved on to become a circus impresario, he even founded a teaching cabinet stocked primarily with animals who had died while on tour at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

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